In the cosmology of the West African religion of Ifá, as in other African Diaspora Religions (or, indeed, many traditions rooted in animism), physical sickness and ill fortune in the home may often result from the interference of malevolent spirits. The spirits’ presence would be determined through an Ifá divination session. I had such a session two nights ago, when I went to see my godfather in Ifá (my oluwo) for a consultation on the recent surprising break (towards the end of May) of my Hand of Ifá idé: a yellow-and-green beaded bracelet worn on the left wrist that denotes my initiation in the religion and my relationship to Ifá, the orisha of divination (His colors are yellow and green). Inbetween the breaking of this vital apotropaic talisman and this past Wednesday’s divination session, I’d attended a drum ceremony (bataa) for the spirits of the dead (eggun) at my godfather’s Ifá house. As I’m one of those “empath” types that seems to attract spirits of the dead, I knew I had to take serious precautions before showing up for the bataa: drum ceremonies almost always involve spirit possession, and the last thing I wanted was an unwanted spirit clinging to me. So I warded myself by drawing certain sigils using cascarilla on my feet, legs, and nape of the neck (that last part is tricky)–the vulnerable parts of the body woeful wights are said to “jump” first when they want to attach themselves to the living.
The bataa took place the night of Sunday, May 31. Not long after my fiancé Daniel and I arrived, I’d begun to feel uneasy. Bad tension headache. I chalked it up at first to Daniel’s unease: he’s an introvert, and being in such a crowded space (among strangers to him, for the most part, as he’s relatively new to this Ifá house) made him uncomfortable; given my empathic nature, it’s guaranteed that I would pick up on his distress and experience his physical symptoms to a certain extent as well. I’d been drinking water steadily all day and knew my headache couldn’t possibly be the result of dehydration.
We made our way through a sea of bodies, dressed all in white as ritual protocol for the occasion demands, and stationed ourselves at a spot that would be good both for dancing (me) or observing (Daniel, who is definitely not inclined towards dancing in public). The drummers and cantor (singer) got participants warmed up with a series of call-and-response invocations, hymns to the various orisha.
And that’s when, perhaps 20 minutes into the proceedings, I began to feel very out of sorts physically. “Whooooooooo!” I loudly whistled, flailing my arms. I felt my eyes widening in response to a stimulus that I couldn’t perceive. The wave of dizziness that overcame me was sudden and powerful; I lunged to grip the edge of a nearby countertop to steady myself.
Daniel rushed to my side and asked if I was okay. I said I wasn’t. Specifically, I replied that I felt “oppressed.” Daniel was alarmed and asked if we should leave, even though he was curious and hoped to see people get up and dance (he was also looking forward to the pulled pork feast upstairs once the ceremony ended). I tried to check in with my body; was I alright? Did I need to leave the premises ASAP? I shook my head and asked him to bring me some water; I would carry on.
As time marched on, I felt worse–like lead had been sewn into my limbs. Dancing was all but impossible. I shuffled my feet lamely. Why was I being zapped of energy? All around me, men and women started to get caught in the throes of ecstatic dance; the Ancestors were among us, all the dead were among us, the dead named and unnamed, spirits of family lineages as well as curious passers-by in the astrals attracted by the ashé being generated in this northwest side of Chicago Ifá house. Manic movement. Ecstatic call-and-response singing. Meanwhile, I felt as though iron weights were being pressed against my chest. They were dragging down my arms too, forcing me to stoop. I felt terrible.
I somehow managed to make it through three hours before I announced to Daniel that I couldn’t take it anymore; the sense of oppression was too great. By that time, more than three people were experiencing waves of spirit possession by the dead; one, a priestess of the orisha Yemaya, was dancing up to people and giving messages from loved ones on the Other Side. A possessed teenage girl, her arms waving violently as she thrashed about in dance steps worthy of a mosh pit instead of a bataa, crashed into me more than once. I would later learn the significance of this contact. But at the time, I was just getting frustrated (I pushed the girl back angrily, just as I would someone at a mosh pit) and increasingly claustrophobic; it didn’t help that the ritual space was subterranean, and not that well ventilated, even with huge fans whirring from two corners. I had to leave, and tugged on Daniel’s shirt sleeve to say that it was time. While he was a little dismayed at missing out on the pulled pork feast, he was concerned for my welfare; also, he wasn’t enjoying the experience, he said. It was too crowded for his liking and “the energy feels weird.” So home we went.
I had trouble sleeping that night. The sense of heaviness on my chest took more than a day to fully dissipate. Then, on the night of June 2, Daniel and I had a horrible fight–one that wound up with the police knocking on our door just before midnight. I remember shielding my eyes during a particularly frightening episode that had me telling Daniel that I wished he could be looking into a mirror as he screamed at me, as he looked nothing short of demonic. The next day had me working a 14-hour shift for my company’s booth at a trade show at McCormick Place; I don’t know how I mustered the physical energy nor the concentration to get through that exhausting period.
And the days bled, one into another, with a growing sense of malaise and unease. Daniel continued an uncharacteristic streak of volatility towards me when we were at home; his behavior was horrible, frightening. I fervently prayed for our anticipated escape to Pagan Spirit Gathering to magically make everything better. The annual festival, which I will write about in a subsequent post, disappointingly wound up being curtailed, spitting Daniel and me and 1,000 other participants back to our respective homes. In the immediate aftermath, starting on June 16, I sank into a deep depression. I’d still had the time taken off work, which meant I would be spending most of my “staycation” time stewing in the house, feeling…oppressed. And all the while, my idé had not yet been repaired. I’d look at my left wrist devoid of my Hand of Ifá and feel despair. My oluwo had traveled out of state and I needed to wait until the night of Wednesday, June 24, to be seen by him and find out why–through an Ifá divination–my Hand broke in the first place (it’s usually a warning of disaster when it breaks), and to get it repaired so I could be fully under the aegis of the powerful orisha’s protection once again.
My appointment couldn’t have come sooner, as I arrived, tear-stricken, in my oluwo’s consultation parlor hot on the heels of a devastating, out-of-the-blue argument with Daniel that went into below-the-belt verbal cruelty very quickly. Our relationship felt clouded by adversity the entire month, and I couldn’t explain why. His volatility was out of control. The negative energy created such miasma in my humble condo that I dreaded going home.
My oluwo was very concerned and began the reading immediately. Was I coming with negativity or blessings to the reading? Obviously, negativity, Ifá answered. Owing to what cause? The signs revealed by the throws of the opele divination chain showed the unmistakable stamp of a very dreaded Nigerian word: Iku, death. There are many forms of iku, many kinds of loss. Was my own death imminent? (An Ifá divination is no-holds-barred and very forthright, and literal life-and-death questions are addressed immediately if the opening sign warrants them.) Deep breath. No. Was this appearance of iku related to the involvement of the dead? Yes. Now we’re getting somewhere.
The odu (sign) that came up: Oyekun iwori. My godfather explained: “Anna, there’s a very deranged spirit in your home: eggun buruku. This particular one is the spirit of a man who was evil in his lifetime. He jumped you recently; he entered your house as a stowaway. And now he’s in there, and he’s thriving off the chaos he’s causing; he’s feeding off of Daniel’s instability and making him violent towards you. How much time are you spending in that potters’ field by your house?”
“This spirit isn’t from the potters’ field,” I said authoritatively. “The bataa for the eggun at the end of last month,” I said. “I wasn’t feeling well the entire time I was there, and now I see why. He must have jumped me early on, because I started feeling sick right away.” Ifá confirmed my statement.
My oluwo shook his head. “This is a strong spirit. Nasty. Eggun buruku.” He paused and looked up at me. “There were people getting possessed at the bataa. This spirit could have jumped on one of them at first but then transferred itself to you. Did you make physical contact with any of the possessed dancers?”
The teenage girl. Mosh-pit thrasher.
“Yes,” I replied, feeling slightly queasy.
“This eggun buruku has been getting stronger as he increases the negative energy in your home,” Oluwo Jim continued. “You need a paraldo, ASAP. I’m going to do a major cleansing of your house, of you, and Daniel too–please tell him to be there.”
The ebo (sacrifice), as determined by Ifá, would entail:
- a large multicolored rooster
- a guinea fowl
- 1 yard each of the following colors of cotton cloth: red, black, white
- a bouquet of white flowers
- a bottle of honey
- a bottle of clear liquor
- 2 white 7-day glass candles
- a glass (used only for this purpose) of clear water
The ceremony was scheduled for Thursday, June 25, after 8 p.m. An eggun working of this sort would have to take place after sunset, when the powers of the spirits of the dead are strongest.
Daniel wasn’t speaking to me. After spewing more vitriol at me that morning before both of us began our respective commutes to work, he’d adopted a “cold shoulder” approach in the evening. In fact, when Oluwo Jim showed up after 8, Dan had decided to sequester himself in the master bedroom without even so much as acknowledging our godfather’s presence, which was deeply insulting. I was embarrassed at Dan’s disrespectful behavior to our oluwo and apologized. Oluwo Jim shook his head sadly and said that the cleansing would provide immediate relief and calm in the household, whether or not Daniel chose to participate. But if a breakup was imminent, maybe I should see it as a blessing. Who could tolerate such behavior, day after day, from her partner? I certainly didn’t deserve it.
Oluwo Jim set down the cardboard box in which he’d inconspicuously smuggled the large rooster and equally large guinea fowl into my condo–the main offerings to the eggun buruku. All four of my cats immediately came to inspect the box and its avian content. They mewed excitedly; I tried to shoo them away.
I asked my oluwo where the best place would be to set up for the ritual. Previously, when he’d blessed my condo after I bought it two years ago, we used my temple room. He said we’d need a lot of room to move around, especially with the birds, and since the kitchen is the heart of most peoples’ homes, he opted to base the working there. It was a good choice as the tiles would be much more amenable to cleaning any inadvertently spilled sacrificial blood than my nice hardwood floors.
The first item of business was to make sure we were facing west as we set up the series of cloths on the floor–red first, overlaid by the white one, with the black one on top. The other supplies were laid out on my kitchen table, with the cascarilla (a chalk made of powdered eggshells) laid out first; it would be used right away. As I watched my godfather trace a fantastic, elaborate sigil (ringed by an ouroboros, detailed snake head and all), I thought of the undeniable Congolese influence in this type of ritual magic. The same Kongo magic that fuels an African religion similar to Ifá: Palo Mayombe, with its teeming hordes of spirits, benevolent and malevolent and everything in between, summoned and commanded through the use of such cascarilla-traced sigils on the ground. Sigils that get fed with animal sacrifices. Fuego y aché por los muertos.
After the sigil was completed and the rounds of prayers of protection to our guardian orisha; to our known, benevolent dead, especially our spiritual forebears in our lineages; and to the Earth Mother Herself (“do not swallow any of us up anytime soon”) were made, my oluwo addressed the eggun buruku directly, stating outright that we were about to present him with a bribe: blood offerings in exchange for leaving me and my household alone, taking his chaos with him as he departs and leaving peace, calm, and concord between Daniel and me in his wake.
This was a cleansing, an exorcism of my home–and, to a lesser extent, my person–but unlike other religions’ ceremonies of expelling an unwelcome entity, in Ifá and similar African Diaspora faiths, the spirit to be ousted is appeased with offerings before it’s shown the door. The spirit’s power is acknowledged even as it is informed that it is no longer welcome and it’s going to be directed elsewhere.
The first level of appeasement came with lighting the incense (sulfur at first) and doing a slow counterclockwise dance while singing to the honor of all eggun. One day those of us living will be able to experience the various powers the dead wield in the Hereafter, the ability they have to effect change in the lives of their descendants. My oluwo punctuated his movements with his bell-laden red, white, and black spirit stick: an impressive ritual implement carved out of the wood of a ceiba tree (the most sacred tree in Cuba in the Ifá and Santería faiths), featuring a carved snake winding up the side and topped with a carving in the shape of a human head (painted white for the dead). I love that staff, but last night I also came to fear it for the first time.
“Follow my movements exactly and sing the responses to what I chant, Anna,” Oluwo Jim instructed me as we completed our last circuit counterclockwise in the kitchen. He reached into the cardboard box and extracted the rooster first. After purifying it by giving it a gulp of water to drink from my kitchen sink, he used it to sweep various points in each room of my home and at every threshold, moving from east to west. The large bird was held by its legs and swung something like a pendulum, its wings providing the cleansing action needed with each sweeping arc. I followed in my oluwo’s footsteps exactly and made sweeping gestures, all the while singing obscure (to me) refrains in Yoruban. After the western-most areas of my condo (in the temple room) were cleansed by the bird–Daniel chose to escape through the back door leading out to the garage, interestingly enough, as our oluwo sang, while brandishing the rooster in the temple room, about the expulsion of all evil before the wisdom of Ifá; Daniel had angrily said beforehand that he refused to participate in the ceremony–we returned to the kitchen. I was asked to slowly turn counterclockwise as the rooster was swept along my body, absorbing whatever negative energy and attachment to the eggun buruku I harbored. Then Oluwo Jim swept the bird over his own body, stating that neither I nor he would be harmed in any way by the departing spirit. And the time for that spirit’s departure was NOW!
The utterance of that word was emphasized with the sudden slamming of the rooster, face/neck first, into the kitchen floor where the sigil lay traced on the black cloth. THWOCK! I heard flesh squish and bones shatter. Its neck broke; it died instantly, eyes closed. I wasn’t expecting the death to come this way, as other rooster sacrifices made on my behalf entailed decapitation with a sacred blade. But no, I reminded myself, making an offering to the eggun is vastly different from making an offering to the orisha: there is no intermediary with the blade (a tool of Ogun, the warrior orisha of iron); the animal is directly offered to Chthonic Powers by making contact with the ground. The earth directly absorbs its life force, its ashé.
“As this rooster dies, so too do all problems in Anna’s household,” Oluwo Jim said.
“Ashé!” I cried out, clapping my hands.
Oluwo Jim demonstrated his guardian spirit’s mastery: he took his spirit stick and struck it into the chest of the dead rooster.
I briefly wondered where the cats except for Hela went; my one-eyed kitten of a feral rescue was too curious for her own good at the outset of the ceremony, so I had her sequestered in the master bathroom. Thor, Beowulf, and Grendel immediately bolted once Oluwo Jim began to trace the sigil earlier. I wonder what instinct prompted them to flee, as if they knew they shouldn’t be witnesses to the goings-on in the kitchen, even though birds were involved.
Oluwo Jim then extracted the guinea fowl from the cardboard box–a large, unattractive black-and-white bird with a turkey-like face. A bird with a vast history of lore and magical/chthonic attributions in various African countries. The same ritualistic actions taken with the rooster were repeated: purification with a drink of water for the bird, then the sweeping motions throughout the house with my following in oluwo’s exact movements and singing the refrains of songs praising the might and the mystery of the dead, and of Ifá’s victory over all evil beings.
Upon our return to the kitchen, the cleansing of my person with the bird ensued and then Oluwo Jim cleansed himself. As I knew what to expect next, I shielded my eyes so as not to witness the violence I knew I didn’t care to see. THWOCK! But this time, the bird was mortally injured and stunned, not killed. It thrashed about on the sigil, flapping its short wings pathetically and bumping into the carcass of its former neighbor in the cardboard box. Seeing that it was about to knock over the lit white glass candle, I immediately lunged into the circle to scoop the latter up and move it to another area in the perimeter of the circle. The guinea fowl stopped thrashing around. Oluwo Jim calmly bent down to pick it up and then he hit it against the floor a couple more times before reaching for his spirit stick again.
“This bird is taking a long time to die, oluwo,” I said nervously.
“These birds are tough,” he conceded. “But no worries. This is the last stand of resistance from the eggun buruku, but he knows he’s lost. He can try to put up a fight but the exit door is marked; he’s got to go and he knows it.”
And with that, the guinea fowl began to lie still, its neck looped back into its spinal column. It almost looked graceful.
“As this guinea fowl dies, so too do all of Anna’s problems in this household,” Oluwo Jim declared.
“ASHÈ!” That time I yelled it before I clapped my hands.
I thought of the Orthodox Jews I had as neighbors down the block from me when I was a kid growing up in Chicago’s immigrant-rich and diverse West Rogers Park neighborhood–how they’d use chickens in a cleansing ceremony around Yom Kippur to expiate their sins, the ceremony called kaparot. African Diaspora Religions aren’t the only ones that turn fowl into fair, nyuk-nyuk!
Divination was required at this stage: was the eggun buruku pleased with the rooster and guinea fowl offered? Would he agree to depart, having been given these offerings? Oluwo Jim reached down to the floor, where the pieces of obí lay: four equal pieces of dried coconut husk with dried rind attached. The patterns of black or white revealed by up-facing or down-facing pieces each have a name and a divinatory assignation to yes or no questions.
The pieces landed on the floor: three white sides up, one black side up.
“Etawa,” Oluwo Jim announced. The spirit wasn’t fully satisfied yet. Oluwo threw the pieces again, and etawa once again was revealed. “Kin lo fé?” he asked. “What’s needed now?” is the English translation. And by process of elimination (“Do you want liquor sprayed onto the birds? Do you want more sulfur incense to burn?”) the obí revealed that what the eggun buruku wanted was simple: sweeten the sacrifices by squeezing some honey onto them. Again, magical parallelism was at work: If I wanted sweetness in my life as a result of the spirit departing, it was only fair (curteous) to offer the spirit sweetness as a farewell token.
The obí was thrown again after the honey offering and the spirit confirmed it was content. With that, Oluwo Jim continued the cleansing of my home: he took the bouquet of white flowers and used it to come into contact with various surfaces in several areas of rooms going from east to west. Then he lay the flowers inside the sigil’s magic circle, atop the black cloth. Next he took a bottle of Florida Water and used it to liberally sprinkle my home, again going from east to west. He paid particular attention to mirrors and thresholds to ensure any harmful spiritual energy would be sealed out. Once he was done with that he gave the birds’ carcasses a good dousing with the Florida Water. Then he took the incense censer and placed frankincense resin on it (remember, when the ritual began with the spirit’s invocation, we used sulfur as incense), and he purified all areas of my home from east to west (he especially fumigated Daniel’s side of the bed).
We returned to the kitchen and stood before the sigil with its mounds of offerings. Oluwo Jim struck his staff into the floor three times and announced that the eggun buruku was now “bound and contained” in the sigil in the cloth, well fed with offerings, and it would depart my home forever, never to return. One final question for the obí remained: the destination of where the bound spirit and its offerings would go. Someplace where its power to harm the living would be nullified. The first place my oluwo asked about–and the most obvious repository–was a desolate cemetery. No, came the reply. Crossroads? No. Deep in a forest? No. Lastly, how about in a river? Yes.
“Oshun’s going to take care of this problem for you,” Oluwo Jim said. And at that point, he started to tie up the bundles of cloth: the outermost layer of black cloth with the dead birds, bundle of flowers, and sigil on it, the middle layer of white cloth, and the red layer of cloth touching the floor. He tied the bundles tightly and then placed the entire kit and caboodle back into the same cardboard box he’d used to transport the birds here. (Ifá is a religion where resources are reused to the fullest extent possible. Cardboard boxes are always highly desirable items.)
Just before he’d finished tying the final knot, Daniel entered through the back door. He wordlessly slipped into the bedroom, seeing Oluwo Jim and me but saying nothing. Naturally, this disrespect incensed our godfather but Oluwo Jim chose to not confront Dan at this time.
“Trust me, Anna: you will find immediate relief as far as household tensions go, but make sure that Daniel doesn’t cross any lines with you. Set ground rules for behavior that you will and will not put up with. Man!” he said, disgustedly. “I can’t stand seeing my godchildren being treated in this way. You let me know tomorrow how things are going. I’m going to throw the eggun buruku into the river on my way home, so you don’t have anything to worry about from here on out. And now, let’s go the opposite direction to close than the way we opened: we will sing and dance our prayers of praise going clockwise.”
And so we did. I sang my heart out, thanking my own ancestors–whose shrine is probably the most active one in my home–for their invaluable aid. I prayed for a restoration of peace, of concord between Dan and I. I hugged my godfather exuberantly before he headed out the front door with his huge burden.
African Witchcraft: It WORKS! That would be my tagline for all of the Ifá workings I’ve done since my initiation into the religion seven years ago. For not long after Oluwo Jim left, I started to get ready for bed, assuming Daniel was going to be grabbing the pillow for another night on the sofa. Instead, he asked to be given the opportunity to be heard out–calmly, without raising his voice–in the bedroom as I crawled under the covers. He explained why he was unwilling to participate in the paraldo, and why he felt that he shouldn’t address Oluwo Jim when it was clear the latter was in the middle of a working. I told him our godfather perceived such silence as a grievous insult, and when that realization sank in, Daniel immediately went to text him an apology. (Oluwo Jim accepted it the next morning and texted Dan a reply, which Dan showed me, saying I need to be treated with respect.) Daniel then apologized for his appalling behavior to me the past few weeks and said he hopes I can forgive him and stand by his side as he gets the help that he needs (we’re talking untreated bipolar II disorder here, folks); pre-marital counseling was something he suggested we see a separate therapist for, and I agreed to it.
My heart felt instantly lightened of all burdens, and I slept soundly for the first night in three weeks. Dan slept by my side, and he slept soundly too. My home feels truly clean, unburdened. Hope infuses my vision. The Ifá reading I had on Wednesday night assured me that I would see situations and people as they truly are, and my blessing for all on this late night as I stare up into the crystalline heavens is that each and every one of you is blessed with clarity in your lives. May your vision be clear, may your words speak their heka with no obstruction, may your hearts be clear of all impediments to grace and growth.
Ashé, ashé, ashé!